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College application season is in high gear, and as colleges and universities make decisions about who to accept, I urge them to pay closer attention to one group in their applicant pool: veterans.

Improving access for veterans at selective institutions is important for three reasons: First, graduation rates at these institutions are significantly higher, and degree attainment is integral to realizing the many benefits, financial and otherwise, that higher education affords.

Second, students at these colleges and universities go on, in disproportionate numbers, to be leaders in our society. Having traditional-aged students engage with enlisted veterans, while ensuring that veterans have access to civilian leadership opportunities, contributes to a healthier democracy.

Third, the role of the military in our democracy must not be taken for granted. As one of the institutions that supports our democratic traditions, we need to better appreciate its role in our society.

Importantly, our military members swear an oath to our Constitution, not to our political leaders — despite the fact that our elected president is the commander in chief. This guarantees that the military will not interfere in political battles and strengthens our institutions’ ability to protect the transfer of power based on election results.

This commitment to the Constitution also provides a contrast to many countries around the world, where militaries and their leaders often support, install or oust presidents and prime ministers, challenging democratic norms and contributing to the rise of authoritarianism.

Related: At some colleges that recruit veterans and their GI Bill money, none graduate

We saw greater attention to ensuring college access for veterans after World War II, with the GI Bill enabling about 8 million returning servicemen to enroll in college and graduate school, changing the paths of their lives.

The sheer number of Americans mobilized for World War II created a generation who understood and respected the role of the military in America.

While there were significant failures to extend this program to all GIs, particularly African Americans, there are still lessons to be learned from it for the 21st century.

Today, with an all-volunteer military and far fewer Americans serving, the military-civilian divide has increased. This is apparent in our government, where fewer and fewer veterans are now being elected to national public office or appointed to the judiciary.

If most people in America never have to worry about serving, they pay much less attention to members of the military and fail to ensure that they are treated appropriately.

Meanwhile, those who enlist and are sent into harm’s way may question the fairness of the system. Many are first-generation Americans and from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, and enlist because they feel that other options for investing in their futures are restricted.

Related: Getting educated while on active duty is getting harder as military rolls back benefits

If those who serve are very different from those who don’t, and those who serve don’t feel that our society treats them fairly, we put our democracy at risk.

One way to counter this: Make greater investments in those who do serve. There are a variety of steps we should take, including making sure that veterans have access to housing, health care and jobs. Making sure they can take advantage of the post-9/11 GI Bill benefits is critical.

Enrolling more veterans in higher education will not only enable them to earn the credentials that will allow them to compete in the civilian labor market, but will also benefit those who haven’t served by encouraging them to learn from those who have.

If those who serve are very different from those who don’t, and those who serve don’t feel that our society treats them fairly, we put our democracy at risk.

Over the last decade, many selective colleges and universities have in fact stepped up. The University of Chicago, Brown, Cornell, Harvard, Syracuse and William & Mary have all increased their recruitment of enlisted veterans. Columbia has done so for longer, through their general studies program.

Among the smaller liberal arts colleges, both Vassar and Wesleyan stand out for having recruited veterans earlier and more consistently than others. Princeton and Yale have gone from enrolling less than a handful of veterans to 30 to 40 per year over the last decade. These colleges and universities have been assisted by several nonprofit organizations whose missions are to help enlisted veterans consider, successfully apply to and succeed at selective schools. These groups include the Warrior-Scholar Project (WSP), Service to School and the Posse Veterans Program. (Disclaimer: I recently joined WSP’s board and chair the Posse Veterans Program Advisory Committee. I also introduced the pilot Posse Veterans Program at Vassar when president.)

With the help of these organizations and a commitment by the more-selective colleges and universities, we can ensure that enlisted veterans are given the educational opportunities that they deserve.

America’s selective colleges and universities opened their doors wide to returning veterans once before. Our nation will be well served if they do so again, to all students who qualify for admission, at the start of the 21st century. We risk a hollowed-out version of democracy if we fail our veterans.

Catharine “Cappy” Hill is managing director of Ithaka S+R and former president of Vassar College.

This story about veterans and selective colleges was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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